The Low Anthem Fitzgerald's May 2, 2011
In another lifetime, and another location, Fitzgerald's could have been a barn. Every time we see a show upstairs, Aftermath halfway expects an owl to swoop out of the rafters and sink its talons into an errant field mouse.
Note to exterminators/Health Dept.: As far as we know, Fitz's does not have a rodent problem, nor any issues with birds of prey. The preceding paragraph was put there purely for effect, because all that was missing at out-of-time Rhode Island group The Low Anthem's sparsely attended but shockingly good show Monday night were a few bales of hay scattered about the stage and some cattle softly lowing nearby.
Freshly churned butter cooling in a brook out back wouldn't have been misplaced either.
Although we missed the first three songs of the set - note to promoters: If you tell us a band is going on at 10:30 p.m., please don't allow them to go on at 10 p.m. - it might have been for the best. When we walked in, the four core members of Low Anthem were hard at work on banjo, electric bass, drums and - we think - a hammered dulcimer, or something close to it.
When we see an instrument that requires mallets onstage, unless we are at the symphony or a Latin-jazz show, it normally sets off all kinds of "precious" alarm bells in Aftermath's head. But this was a ghostly, minimal tune in the barely-there vein of Low or Smog (Bill Callahan, whatever), enhanced by the ethereal waves of tremolo Jocie Adams was creating with those mallets.
The faint volume level didn't have a prayer of drowning out the steady thump of drums coming up from the show downstairs, which is when The Low Anthem completely disarmed us.
"I want to introduce the band downstairs," one of Adams' male bandmates said. "They're called Double Kick Fetus."
And instead of yielding any ground, the quartet gathered around one microphone in the middle of the stage and sang the hymnlike "Ghost Woman Blues," marginal acoustic guitar and lonesome clarinet framing the close harmonies of people who have been singing together for a long, long time - possibly, judging by their ages, since long before they were even born.
Or maybe not.
Turns out The Low Anthem has a rock streak after all; unless they opened electrically, they just took their time getting around to it. But ragged hollowbody guitar and tipsy drums gave "Hey, All You Hippies!" an appropriate Buffalo Springfield cast; the harmonica of "Boeing 737" added another layer of Neil Young; and the garage/Dylan mash-up of Jack Kerouac's "Home I'll Never Be" outstomped even Double Kick Fetus down there.
Most impressively, the band kept those close harmonies among all the din, and continued to do so throughout the set while backing off on the volume and switching out instruments on nearly every song - trumpet, pump organ, bowed bass, banjo and bells, and the smallest euphonium Aftermath had ever seen on melancholy snail's-pace chorale "This Goddamn House," which, paradoxically, radiated both loneliness and warmth.
At the end of that one, Mr. Double Kick Fetus took out two cell phones and held them close enough together that the song faded out in a haze of high-pitched feedback to a pitch-dark room. A cryptic commentary on the lack of true communication in modern times, perhaps, but a cool effect regardless.
That and one of the band's traveling companions - besides the four we walked in on, two or three other people came on and offstage during the evening, including opener Daniel Lefkowicz, who spent the rest of the time keeping an eye on his spoon collection at the merch table - surreptitiously checking his smartphone was the only hint that the Low Anthem even belonged in the 21st century, or even the 20th.
When Aftermath's buddy asked us where the band was from, we seriously considered saying "1862." It was as if a troupe of scruffy Civil War minstrels wandered through a rip in time into Okkervil River's backyard.
At this point, we were going to describe what those harmonies did to Leonard Cohen's "Bird On a Wire," four of them back around that same one microphone, only that very softly strummed hollowbody for company, but we're not sure what we wrote down could even do it justice. Here it is anyway: Hair-raising. Blood-freezing. Throat-closing.
Get the picture? It was that good, and if anything, their own fragile waltz "On the Way to Ohio" was even better. "Every new love was just a shadow"? These kids can write some lyrics, too.
Yes, The Low Anthem are Yankee folkies to the core, but the crowd (what little there was) embraced them as if they had wandered into Fitzgerald's straight from Anderson Fair by way of Super Happy Fun Land, and would not let them leave until after one more waltz, "Charlie Darwin."
Spellbinding. As someone hearing them for the first time Monday, we can testify the songs were so instantly memorable and convincingly performed that Aftermath doubts The Low Anthem will be playing for audiences this small for much longer.
They probably aren't in most other places already. In any case, Austin City Limits, here they come.
Personal Bias: Zilch. Before Monday, we had never heard a note of The Low Anthem, and only knew about them at all from a February New York Times article. We distinctly remember thinking, "Any band that makes an album in an abandoned pasta factory [this year's Nonesuch release Smart Flesh] we have to see for ourselves."
The Crowd: About 50 people, all of them stock-still except for one dancing couple.
Overheard In the Crowd: Our notebook pages rustling during the end of "This Goddamn House." It was that quiet.
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Random Notebook Dump: "Double Kick Fetus" was actually Southern California psychedelic surf-rockers The Growlers. Our sister music blog in Phoenix, Up on the Sun, interviewed the band last week.
Extra Random Notebook Dump: They should have opened for James Taylor at the Woodlands last month.